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What a Pawnshop Taught Me About Chicago

Chicago’s foremost urban chronicler muses on the art and hustle of just getting by.

Dan Lebovitz, co-owner of Chicago Pawners & Jewelers   Photo: DS Shin

In recent years, I’ve gotten into the habit of periodically stopping by Chicago Pawners & Jewelers, a small pawnshop on the Near West Side, a neighborhood that has changed considerably over the years. Not long ago, Rockwell Gardens, a forbidding public housing complex, sat a few blocks away, and for its residents Chicago Pawners was like their local bank. It was the only place they could get a loan. Those high-rises have since been razed. And the neighborhood, while not quite gentrifying, has morphed into a community of some diversity, if not in race then at least in income, the desperately poor living side by side with middle-class families. Oddly, though, the goods at Chicago Pawners remain pretty much the same. Along the shelves on one wall sit acoustic and electric guitars, a lone trombone and a lone trumpet, a couple of violins, two bikes, and a platoon of flat-screen televisions. A glass case holds wedding rings, cufflinks (one pair sells for $749), a gold medallion of a hand holding four aces (which sells for $3,250), and a gold ring in the shape of a Rolls-Royce, so large it extends across three knuckles, with small diamonds encrusted in the headlights and wheels. Each item is here because it was given up for cash, something to tide its owner over in the wake of calamity or misfortune.

I enjoy the company here. No one puts on airs, people are who they are, people brawl and laugh and cry and see the world around them with such clarity and freshness. They push you to do the same. One of the brothers who own the store, Dan Lebovitz, once told me, “Being a pawnbroker is like being a bartender. People come to my window and I hear their stories.”

One day, midmorning, a petite African American woman hesitantly sidles up to one of the two windows at the rear of the shop. She’s in her late 30s, wearing a floral blouse and fashionable rectangular glasses. Through an opening under the window she slides toward Dan a gold bracelet, a gold ring, and a camera. “How much you need?” Dan asks. “I gotta pay two months of my daughter’s tuition, fifteen hundred dollars,” she replies, her voice barely audible through the Plexiglas. Dan leans forward, his ear near the opening. She tells him that her daughter attends Trinity High School in west suburban River Forest, though she’s hoping to get her into Fenwick, another top Catholic school nearby. She tells Dan — he never asks — that the ring was a 10th-anniversary gift from her husband, but that they’re now divorced. Nonetheless, she wants her daughter to have it someday. Dan weighs the jewelry, asks an employee — someone more mechanically inclined — to examine the camera, and offers the woman $700. “It’ll get you halfway there,” he tells her. She steps aside to consider the deal.

Dan, who’s dressed in a powder-blue polo with the store’s name emblazoned on the front, tells me, “If you have nowhere else to go, we’re their last hope.” People do what they need to do to get by. He tells me the story of a young man who came in to pawn an acoustic guitar. A week later, an older man walked into the store, asked about the guitar, and paid the cash to get it out of hock. He explained to Dan that it was his son who had pawned it, and told him, “Please, you need to take the guitar if he comes in again. Or he’ll sell it to someone on the street, and I’ll never get it back.” And so, for the next few months, the young man would come in and pawn his father’s guitar, and then his father would pay to get it back. Dan tells me this story with an empathic smile, as if to say, We all have complicated lives. Life doesn’t stand still, and you need to roll with it or you’ll lose what it is you value.

It’s in places like Chicago Pawners where you come to see how the world really works, and it’s where you come to fully understand this city, contradictions and all. One afternoon, I was standing by the display case of watches and jewelry, talking with Dan, when a thin woman — unhealthily thin, dressed in white jeans and a white blouse — barged into the store and broke into dance, her gracefulness belying her age. She circled me as she did a kind of two-step. “Oh, honey,” she said, almost scoldingly, as if to urge me to lighten up and dance with her. Another woman pleaded with Dan that she needed $100 for her Xbox One system and a silver ring. Dan told her he could give her $90, that that’s all they were worth. And then he looked at two substantial rings she was wearing. “If you want to pawn one of those,” he told her. She looked at the rings, then back at Dan, and shook her head. She cajoled some more. Dan can be a tough negotiator, even when his heart is pushing him elsewhere. He offered her $95, not quite what she needed. But close. He told me later, “That was hard. She looked like she really needed the cash.”

Dan gets it that most who frequent Chicago Pawners are desperate, often one step away from losing a home, a job, a lover, or simply a way of life. But here’s the thing: They’re also entrepreneurial. They’re hustling to stay afloat. You might think this is a place of woe, but in fact it’s a source of life. Joy alongside distress. Hope alongside despair.

A number of years ago, Dan, who’s easily amused, started to tweet, as something to pass the time, a collection of observations from his customers:

First customer of day: “Hey Dan haven’t seen you in a while … you are getting fat and old … Can I get a little extra for my ring?”

Customer pawning his BOSE radio: “I love this more than I love my woman.”

Customer: “Motherfuckers would pawn their kidneys if they could.”

Remember the young woman who was trying to get her $1,500 to pay a tuition bill for her daughter’s parochial school? She took the $700 Dan had offered for her bracelet, ring, and camera. “I’ve got a business to run,” Dan told me after she left. And then, looking sheepish, he conceded, “Did I give her a hundred bucks more than I should’ve?” He looked away. “Yeah, I believed her story.”

Adapted from the afterword to the new edition of Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz (University of Chicago Press, 2019). Reprinted by permission.

 

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